The Titanic leaving the harbor in Southampton.
The Titanic leaving the harbor in Southampton. Private archive Günter Bäbler

Swiss on the Titanic

Over a century after her dramatic demise, the Titanic lingers omnipresent in the human imagination. The stories of the Titanic’s Swiss staff and passengers are a rich kaleidoscope into a maritime disaster and an era on the precipice of tremendous change.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

The Titanic’s genesis is rooted in international maritime competition. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Cunard Line and the White Star Line clashed as commercial rivals in the quest to dominate the Transatlantic passenger trade. By the 1890s, the German Hamburg-Amerika Line and Norddeutscher Lloyd entered the fray, outstripping both Cunard and White Star with ships that were not only fast and large, but beautiful. Following the successful debuts of Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania in 1907, the Managing Director of the White Star Line met with the Chairman of Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland to strategize how White Star could recapture its share of the market. They agreed to build a trio of ships that would not only rival the Lusitania and Mauretania, but outclass them in size and grandeur. The first of a trio of new ships, the Olympic, was launched in 1910 and sailed on her maiden voyage in 1911. As the largest ship in the world and the first in a new class of superliners, the Olympic was a marvel, receiving international acclaim. From her exquisite first class cabins to her gymnasium, and from her Veranda Café and Palm Court, the Olympic dazzled travelers. The Olympic’s second and third class accommodations even received accolades.
The Palm Court on the Olympic, 1911.
The Palm Court on the Olympic, 1911. Wikimedia
This White Line matchbox advertises the "largest, fastest and most luxurious steamships in the world".
This White Star Line matchbox advertises the "largest, fastest and most luxurious steamships in the world". Wikimedia
It is thus no surprise that the launch of the Titanic, the Olympic’s sister ship, also elicited enormous media attention in 1911. The Titanic was more lavishly appointed and larger than her sister ship. Aside from glamor and modern conveniences, White Star heavily marketed the Titanic’s watertight compartments and remotely-activated watertight doors. Declared to be “unsinkable”, the Titanic was world famous before she set sail from Southampton on April 10, 1912. The avalanche of media hype worked its magic even in landlocked Switzerland. Swiss nationals were among those who joined the crew or booked passage on the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage.
The Titanic shortly before launching in May 1911.
The Titanic shortly before launching in May 1911. Library of Congress

The Titanic’s Swiss staff

Many Swiss – especially those from Ticino and Italian-speaking Graubünden – found employment in the Titanic’s exclusive first class à la Carte restaurant. Their presence on the Titanic reflected the business interests of the successful Italian restaurateur, Liugi Gatti. He operated the Titanic’s à la Carte restaurant as a concession. To ensure a propitious maiden voyage, Gatti relied on the diligence of Italian-speaking Swiss like Narciso Bazzi. A native of Brissago (TI), Narciso had spent an adventurous youth between Switzerland and South Africa before he eventually moved to London to work with his brother in an Italian restaurant. In 1911, White Star hired him to serve as a senior first class waiter on the Olympic. It was said after the disaster that White Star invited Narciso to take the place of a sick Ticinese colleague on the Titanic.
Illustration of the Titanic's à la carte restaurant, which was reserved for wealthy first-class travelers.
Illustration of the Titanic's à la carte restaurant, which was reserved for wealthy first-class travelers. Wikimedia
The Titanic's dining room for second-class guests.
The Titanic's dining room for second-class guests. Wikimedia
This is how the third-class travellers on the Titanic dined.
This is how the third-class travellers on the Titanic dined. Wikimedia
Mario Zanetti from Poschiavo (GR) and his friends – Alessandro Pedrini from Osco (TI) and Abele Rigozzi from Aquila (TI) – likewise signed up to serve in the à la Carte restaurant just before the Titanic set sail. The three were recent immigrants to England and had worked together in Gatti’s fashionable London restaurants. Gatti also oversaw the work of Johannes Vögelin-Dubach from Reigoldswil (BL) and Gérald Gosclaude from Fleurier (NE) in the restaurant. Johannes had emigrated to England in 1900 and found work as the head pantry cook in London’s Savoy Hotel before procuring more lucrative employment as a waiter at sea. He married a fellow Swiss immigrant, Lina Dubach, and the couple had two daughters and a son. It is known that Gérald was Johannes’ friend. Gérald had trained as a confectioner at a Swiss restaurant in Cheltenham, England before working in several hotels in London. Gatti hired Gérald specifically to assist with other staff members, as a waiter, during the restaurant’s breakfast service.
Confectioner Gérald Grosclaude, who assisted with breakfast.
Confectioner Gérald Grosclaude, who assisted with breakfast. Private archive Günter Bäbler
One finds Swiss holding other positions in service too. Emma Bliss, née Junod, was born in Rolle (VD), but she moved to England in 1891 to work as a lady's maid to the wife of a prosperous industrialist in Surrey. Soon thereafter, she married and ran off with the estate's butler, Ernest John Bliss, and went on to have two sons and a daughter. After her husband and two sons emigrated to Canada in 1911, Emma needed the extra income to secure her own emigration to Ontario. Having already worked as a second-class stewardess onboard the White Star liner Majestic, she agreed to transfer to the Titanic in April 1912. Like Emma, Adolf Mattmann was focused on the future. Adolf was born in Inwil (LU) and trained as a confectioner at the renowned Karl Häberle pastry shop in Luzern. Fluent in French, German, and English, Adolf believed he could capitalize on his talents and receive higher wages if he moved to England. He emigrated in 1911 and obtained a work contract for the Olympic. Adolf then transferred to the Titanic in April 1912 – where he would serve as a glacier – but the new contract was temporary. His long-term goal had been to work at a grand hotel in London; he was hired by one only weeks before the Titanic’s departure.
Adolf Mattmann, the ice cream maker from Inwil.
Adolf Mattmann, the ice cream maker from Inwil. Private archive Günter Bäbler
The real star among the Titanic’s Swiss staff was undoubtedly Joseph-Alexis Bochatay who was the Titanic’s assistant chef. Born in Salvan (VS), the ambitious Joseph apprenticed as a cook in Switzerland before emigrating to England. White Star took notice of his culinary talents, hiring him in 1911. He worked in the First Class galley on the Olympic before receiving an offer to work in the Titanic’s kitchens. His handsome salary was nearly five times more than his fellow Swiss counterparts in White Star service: £10 per month.
First class lunch menu from 14 April 1912.
First class lunch menu from 14 April 1912. Wikimedia

Titanic’s Swiss passengers

Numerous Swiss additionally sailed on board the Titanic as passengers in all three classes of service. Among the most prominent Swiss on the Titanic were three members of the Jewish Frölicher-Stehli family of Zürich. Maximilian Josef Frölicher was a businessman who had married his employer’s daughter, Margaretha Emerentia Frölicher-Stehli. She belonged to a prosperous family of silk merchants. The couple owned a fashionable villa on Mittelstrasse 6 in Zürich and had five children. Their daughter Hedwig accompanied them on this business trip to New York. All three traveled in first class, but the trip was not so enjoyable – Hedwig suffered bouts of seasickness throughout the journey. Two prominent Baslers had booked passage in first class as well: Alfons Simonius-Blumer and Max Staehelin. Alfons began his career as a colonel in the Swiss army, later becoming the respected president of the Schweizer Bankverein. He traveled to New York with Max, a finance lawyer and the director of the Schweizerische Treuhandgesellschaft. Throughout the voyage, they socialized with their friends, the Frölicher-Stehlis, in the Café Parisien and the First Class Smoking Room, discussing their respective business interests in the United States.
Max Fröhlicher, who traveled with his family in first class.
Max Fröhlicher, who traveled with his family in first class. Private archive Günter Bäbler
The entrepreneur and President of the Swiss Bankers Association Alfons Simonius-Blumer.
The entrepreneur and President of the Schweizer Bankverein Alfons Simonius-Blumer. Private archive Günter Bäbler
Also traveling in first class was Emma Sägesser. She was born in Aarwangen (BE) but grew up in Geneva. She was the lady's maid to the pert Parisian nightclub entertainer Ninette Aubart. Ninette was the current lover of the wealthy American magnate Benjamin Guggenheim, a descendant of a Swiss-Jewish family. In fact, it was Guggenheim who paid for their tickets. The couple flaunted social convention, appearing together while Guggenheim was still married. Others gossiped because Ninette was Catholic, while Guggenheim was Jewish. For her part, Emma did not mind – she found Guggenheim to be a perfect gentleman.
Swiss passengers occupied cabins in second and third class as well. Marie-Marthe Jerwan, née Thuillard, was born in Mont-de-Couvet (NE) but was happily married to a Maronite Lebanese proofreader in Manhattan. Returning to the United States after a family visit to Switzerland, Marie traveled in second class, enjoying the company of two French passengers, René Lévy and Jean-Noël Malachard. They shared her intellectual interests in the sciences and cinematography. The seventeen-year-old Bertha Lehmann from Lotzwil (BE) also traveled alone in second class. Her siblings had sent the necessary funds so that she could pay them a visit in Iowa. Although she had originally planned to travel in May, she decided to embark after Easter. She found the seas disagreeable and was ill until April 14th. Josef Arnold and his wife Josefine Franchi from Altdorf (UR) traveled in third class as emigrants to the United States. Relatives in Wisconsin had paid for their tickets and while excited at the prospect of starting a new life in the American Midwest, they had to leave their infant son behind in Canton Uri. Their cousin, Aloisia Haas, also from Altdorf (UR), accompanied them, but her final destination was Chicago. She had long dreamt of life in what was then the second-largest city in the United States.
Josefine and Josef Arnold, who wanted to emigrate to America on the Titanic.
Josefine and Josef Arnold, who wanted to emigrate to America on the Titanic. Private archive Günter Bäbler
A young farmer named Albert Wirz from Buchholz (ZU), near Uster, shared his cabin with Joseph as White Star segregated men from women in third class. Albert too was an emigrant and eager to begin farming with extended kin in Beloit, Wisconsin.

A night to remember

Sailing from Southampton to New York, via Cherbourg and Queenstown (present-day Cobh), the first four days of the Titanic’s maiden voyage were uneventful. Passengers marveled at her amenities and idled away the time. Throughout the afternoon of April 14, 1912, radio operators on the Titanic received a series of six messages from other vessels warning them of icebergs. These warnings were disregarded by Captain Edward Smith who kept the Titanic running at a speed of nearly 22 knots (41 km). This decision would prove catastrophic: The Titanic struck an iceberg shortly after 11:40 PM, which compromised five of the ship's watertight compartments. Some surviving passengers would later recall feeling the impact or being awoken by it. Others remembered hearing the sudden cessation of the engines. Some went up to the boat deck even before being ordered to do so. The Frölicher-Stehlis surveyed the situation, deciding to step into lifeboat no. 5, which was lowered around 12:45 AM. Not long thereafter, Alfons Simonius-Blumer and Max Staehelin entered lifeboat no. 3 right before 12:50 AM. Emma Sägesser got into lifeboat no. 9 around 1:30 AM with a distraught Ninette Aubart. As their lifeboat descended down into the Atlantic, Benjamin Guggenheim said his farewells to Emma in fluent German. Bertha Lehmann battled the growing crowds and made a lucky escape with other second class women in lifeboat no. 12, which was lowered around 1:30 AM. Marie-Marthe Jerwan had the good sense to dress warmly and pack a small bag of essential items before climbing into lifeboat no. 11 at 1:35 AM. By then, nearly half of the lifeboats were gone and no rescue ship was in sight.
Animation of the sinking of the Titanic in real time. YouTube
A palpable panic swept the ship with hundreds trying to find safety in the Titanic’s few remaining lifeboats. Sensing imminent danger, Emma Bliss left her assigned post and got into lifeboat no. 15 with other crew members just seconds before it was launched at 1:41 AM. It is alleged that several stewards detained the male staff of the à la carte restaurant as the ship sank. None from Switzerland would survive the sinking. A similar fate awaited Swiss passengers traveling in third class as the ship floundered around 2:20 AM. The Titanic had 20 lifeboats which, in total and theory, would accommodate up to 1,178 people. Of the Titanic’s 2,240 passengers and crew, only 706 would survive and be rescued by the passenger ship Carpathia in the early hours of April 15th.
A group of survivors onboard the Cunard liner Carpathia.
A group of survivors onboard the Cunard liner Carpathia. Library of Congress
336 bodies were recovered over the course of a few weeks. Ten days after the disaster, the Canadian cable ship, MacKay-Bennett, recovered the body of Albert Wirz. Several personal belongings – two pocket watches, a brass chain, an inkwell, a matchbox, an insurance book, a passport, an empty wallet, and a wallet with 36 cents – were additionally salvaged. White Star sent Albert’s personal effects back to his parents in Switzerland, and one can see Albert's handsome, black leather wallet in the exhibition Simply Zurich within the Swiss National Museum today. Albert’s body was transported via Halifax, Canada to Beloit, Wisconsin for burial. On May 11, 1912, The Beloit Daily News published an obituary which honored a young man whose life had been marked by unfulfilled hope: His journey is finished. He has reached the place he set out for. But no ruddy cheeked (Swiss) lad will add his wealth of energy and labor to the industries of Beloit. Instead a little mound in the city cemetery marks the consummation of his life’s hopes and incidentally brings home to the people of Beloit, the great ocean tragedy that shocked the entire civilization of the present day and will go down in history as one of the great disasters of all time.
Albert Wirz's initials can still be identified on his black wallet.
Albert Wirz's initials can still be identified on his black wallet. © Simply Zurich, photo: Mara Truog
The lives of the Titanic’s Swiss passengers and staff constitute an intriguing portrait of an era and nation marked by change and contradiction: Emigration to Britain and the United States in spite of newfound industrial wealth found at home; rising social mobility and yet residual class prejudice; the integration of Jews in the face of anti-Semitism; new economic opportunities for the Ticinese despite widespread anti-Italian sentiments; and the rising status of women. Historians are apt in stating that the sinking of the Titanic heralds the decline of the Belle Époque Era in Europe and the Edwardian Era in Britain. Ironically, it was another maritime disaster, which would signify the end of this epoch. It was that of the liner, which initially set the tone for sumptuousness at sea during the “long Edwardian summer”: the Lusitania.

Further posts